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Trolls take on 9-year-old girl's Kickstarter project...and lose

The conspiracy theories swirling around a seemingly benign crowdfunding campaign turned into a tornado over the weekend. Crave's Eric Mack investigates.

The campaign to send a young girl to programming camp has stirred up quite a controversy.
Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

My dear sweet Internet, you have been the light of my life for nearly two decades, so why must you choose now to impart so much darkness and sadness?

Last week, my editors spotted and passed on an adorable project on Kickstarter attempting to raise 800 bucks to send a 9-year-old girl to a weeklong camp where she would learn to design her own role-playing game. Backers who pledged $10 or more would get a copy of the game she produced. The heartwarming sentiment resonated, and the project quickly caught fire and has so far raised more than $20,000, or more than 20 times its target.

So we published a brief write-up of the campaign's success on Friday and began our weekend in good spirits, our faith in the world reaffirmed and visions of a new generation of empowered gamer girls dancing in our heads.

Then came the trolls.

The weekend had barely begun when the name-calling comments and e-mails began coming in. Apparently I was not some guy who wrote about a cool crowdfunding campaign -- I was now clearly someone who promotes scams and con artists. But that was nothing compared to the vitriol directed at Susan Wilson, the mother of 9-year-old Mackenzie and the actual owner of the Kickstarter project in question.

Wilson and her daughter received death threats in the wake of the publicity the campaign received, and yesterday a lengthy post on Reddit began to circulate that called Wilson a "millionaire...scumbag, clearly has no ethics, is a cyber suqatter and a spammer, exploits her children, exploits gender issues & appeals to misandry to make a few bucks."

By Sunday night, traffic to my post on the Kickstarter project had slowed, but e-mails pointing me to the Reddit page -- often with a few choice words about my character -- began to pick up. The trolls had begun to take over.

Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

More than one crawled out from under the bridge
I'm overgeneralizing here, but two breeds of troll seem to be attacking Wilson and her successful Kickstarter campaign. The most common is Troll A, who has found evidence of Wilson's past business success, entrepreneurial spirit, and yes, a skill for self-promotion, and labeled her a millionaire. Throw in some other troll-icious photographic evidence -- look! Her picture with Warren Buffet! Behold! A pair of $1,000 shoes! -- and Troll A figures we may as well just upgrade her to membership in the 1 percent club.

Troll B tends to dwell more on the gender issues, complaining about the very nature of a project to help send a young girl to anything STEM-related. The main Reddit thread on this begins: "A millionaire woman is exploiting current gender issues (the whole "women in programming" business)..." and is posted in the "MensRights" subReddit which is also home to some less-than-scintillating conversation about the Adria Richards affair, plenty of "dongle" and "forking" comments, and a whole lot of whining.

This all comes on the heels of not just the Richards debacle, but also some bizarre Samsung press events that were widely criticized for their sexist overtones -- prompting the Korean company to apologize for one of them, which happened not to be the one for the Galaxy S4 that people actually cared about.

Debunking the junk
So yesterday I started doing some researching and reaching out on my own. I've covered crowdfunding pretty closely for more than a year now, and so I had a hunch that many of the claims that Wilson's campaign is in violation of Kickstarter's rules were silly -- Kickstarter reviews and approves all projects before they go live. But just to be sure, I asked directly and got this response from Justin Kazmark at Kickstarter:

Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects. The goal of this project is to create a video game, which backers are offered for a $10 pledge. On Kickstarter backers ultimately decide the validity and worthiness of a project by whether they decide to fund it.

Wilson has also shared an e-mail that she claims is from Kickstarter -- I wasn't able to verify this, but the text still remains on her latest project update -- that clearly demonstrates the site's support for the project, as if it weren't already implicit.

...for all the folks in the comment section nitpicking, there are exponentially more that are rooting for you, Mackenzie (AND her brother!). You can count the folks at kickstarter in that crowd.

Also the notion that Wilson should have just used her own crowdfunding platform, FundHer, is ignorant. FundHer never really got off the ground and has nowhere near the reach of Kickstarter, as Wilson herself admitted in an update to the campaign today:

Though I started FundHer as a passion project several years ago, it never got any traction and to date has garnered less than $100 in donations over several years but has given away far more.

Wilson also responded to other conclusions drawn by the trolls, dispelling the notion of the size of her bank account ("I don't have a million dollars in the bank, I'm not rolling in cash and I'm not a highly paid business woman. Frankly, I'm unemployed at this very moment!"); her status as a Warren Buffet buddy (it was a photo op from an awards ceremony); and those pricey shoes ( a splurge after a long-shot bet at the roulette wheel paid off years ago). She added:

Kickstarter is about the power of the crowd and though you might not always like what the crowd says, you can't push the "It's not Fair" button when you disagree. Though I'm not in the 1% club, I do find it sad many think Kickstarter should only be used for the downtrodden and the poor because it has the power to extend far beyond.

Wilson also took the bold move of outing the two people who made threats against her and her family, and she told me in an e-mail that she is actively searching for a worthy cause to direct all the extra money that the crowdfunding campaign raises beyond the original modest goal.

"It's clear this campaign resonated for a reason that's much bigger than Mackenzie and ALL OF THE extra money should go to that bigger movement," Wilson writes. "I can't say I know what that is right now (it's been a whirlwind and certainly wasn't planned) but smart people are working on it with Brenda Romero (gamer in residence at University of California at Santa Cruz who's husband created Doom and Quake) being among my personal favorites."

She says she's also been approached by people from Adobe, Disney, and others about teaming up somehow.

Now with 25 days still to go, the campaign has raised more than $20,000 and the trolls have not quite been beaten back. They're now accusing Wilson of impersonating a Kickstarter employee.

Seems if that were true, Kickstarter wouldn't be silent about such an infraction. But don't listen to me -- I'm just a billionaire journalist on the take, right?